Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Status of Herodotus as a Historian

The mainstream opinion regarding Herodotus is that he is the "father of historical writing", or something to that general effect. I should like to examine this claim and see whether or not he should be lumped in with "modern" historians, or whether he is in another realm of historiography.

What does it mean to engage in historical writing? Most would argue that it entails looking at, and critically examining past events. This is what modern historians do; they research, then analyze the facts they have gathered and then proceed to record them. The sources they use to gather facts are usually primary one's; they are "nearer to the events". Does Herodotus fit this characterization? To some extent, yes. He certainly does think critically about some of the information he gathers as well as critiquing the prevailing views on the basis of information that he finds. "The Greek account of Heracles' birth", for example, "is far from being the only thoughtless thing they say". On some level, Herodotus is on par with the critical aspect of modern historiography; he seems to analyze the different accounts he comes across and then selects the one he feels he has the most evidence behind it. Moreover, he begins his history with a mythical starting point: the abduction of a woman by some Eastern traders. Herodotus then rejects this mythical starting point and proceeds to examine the "historical" ground for the tensions between Greeks and barbarians. This being said, he differs in other respects from modern historians. First of all, his sources for the history of the Persian War were probably second, third, or even fourth hand accounts; he was writing more than 50 years after the battles took place. "Facts" can easily be embellished or shift through time; the accounts he received were most likely oral, not written. One can perhaps imagine a Nestor-like veteran from the Persian Wars reminiscing and not quite telling things as they are. Also, even though he rejects the "mythical" starting point, he still includes many folk elements in his Histories. Herodotus loves a good story. Third, his history is not a straight narrative; the entirety of Book 2 is a massive digression concerning Egypt. Later in the Histories he has sections on the Scythians, as well as other peoples that don't directly connect with the narrative of the Persian Wars.

My point is that, though Herodotus may have been the father of modern historiography, this does not entail that he wrote a "modern history". There is a tension between his critical faculty and his factual sources/folk narrative elements. Herodotus is somewhere in between the mythic historian and the modern historian; he is on the cusp between what we call modern historiography and mere "story". Herodotus is certainly a historian, but he's not a modern one. Perhaps this will be evident from the sense of the Greek word for history: historia. The word doesn't have the sense of our modern word "history"; it literally means "inquiry". Herodotus is merely inquiring; one gets the sense he was quite curious about the world around him, regardless of whether the discussions fit into his history of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians. Thus, even the way Herodotus presumably understood "a history" differs slightly from ours; the boundaries and expectations of historiography differed from our modern conception of it.

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